Author Archives: Kimberly Ayers

Kimberly Ayers has lived in California for more than 20 years, both north and south. Growing up in the Middle East as an "oil brat," she has been blessed with lots of travel. Her storytelling has appeared most recently on the National Geographic Channel, including reporting from Belize and Egypt. For the past four years, she has produced the PBS stations' broadcast of the National Geographic Bee: the questions are really hard, and the kids are crazy-smart. At forty-something, she walked the Catalina Marathon, and most mornings you will find her walking somewhere on the SoCal coast.

Zooming in on L.A.’s Warming Climate

First-of-its-kind study breaks down predictions for 27 L.A. microclimates

Kimberly Ayers

Green roofs like this one at Vista Hermosa City Park are part of the solution for Los Angeles

Listen to the radio version of this story on The California Report.

The City and County of Los Angeles now have customized climate predictions, thanks to a new UCLA study that took global climate science and made it local. A UCLA supercomputer ran for eight months to downscale 22 different global climate models, distilling them into a surgically precise look at L.A. County and beyond. It’s a new kind of Hollywood close-up and it’s a sobering one: temperatures will rise in areas of Los Angeles County by an average of 4 to 5 degrees by mid-century.

Commissioned by the city of Los Angeles, funded by a U.S. Department of Energy grant and conducted by UCLA’s Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science, the study focused on forecasting for the metro area between 2041 and 2060. But instead of relying on the global climate model grids that use data from 100 kilometer-square cells of the earth’s surface, the UCLA team’s “quintillion-plus” calculations — yes, that’s with 18 zeros — zoom in to a resolution of 2 square kilometers, just over a square mile.  So instead of data and forecasting for the whole county, you can talk specifically about climate change for Corona, for example. Continue reading

Water From Above and Below Likely Culprit in SoCal Landslide

Rain, irrigation and residential development contributed to November’s San Pedro Slide

USGS & Don Knabbe

Options for fixing the San Pedro Slide in southwestern Los Angeles range from several million to 62 million dollars.

It’s a long and inconclusive list of usual suspects that appear in the final draft report [PDF] released by the City of Los Angeles this week. The Department of Public Works tapped the Glendale geotechnical consulting firm Shannon and Wilson to investigate the slide that sent a 600-foot section of seaside roadway toward the Pacific last November.

My radio report and blog post back in April explained the slippery mix of water and soft sediment that permeates the Palos Verdes Peninsula, and what happens when too much water gets between those unstable layers of earth.

Shannon and Wilson’s report lists the following as “contributors” to the slide: irrigation — both residential and watering done inside the White Point Nature Preserve adjacent to the slide — coastal bluff erosion, precipitation, road construction and underground utilities. Just above the Preserve is a 13.2-acre complex of U.S. Air Force housing, and watering from those homes could be “influencing groundwater” near the slide. Continue reading

Green Light for Feed-in Tariff to Spark L.A. Renewable Energy

City Council OK’s demo program to buy power from small-scale renewable generators

Kimberly Ayers

Feed-in tariffs from private solar arrays like this one enable the world's largest source of renewable energy.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) now gets to ramp up a pilot phase that could add up to 150 megawatts of renewable electricity after 2016 — enough to power 22,000 homes — all with an eye toward hitting the state-mandated goal of 33% of its power from renewables by 2020. The measure awaits the mayor’s signature, expected late next week.

A common example of the new program would be a commercial real estate or large warehouse owner installing a rooftop solar power system and selling that power back to the local utility. The simplest definition I’ve found comes from another city that just approved a similar program for solar energy, Palo Alto: “Feed-in tariff programs involve a utility paying a fixed price, a “tariff,” for the power that is “fed into” their electric grid from local generation systems.” Continue reading

Storms and Rising Seas Present New Threats to Unstable SoCal Peninsula

The geologic features of the Palos Verdes Peninsula make it a hotspot for landslides

Bureau of Engineering / City of Los Angeles

November's sea cliff failure took out 600+ feet of roadway and sidewalks.

The latest Palos Verdes Peninsula slide may calve, and the main slide mass is likely to keep “moving oceanward.” That’s according to a preliminary draft of a geotechnical study commissioned by the City of Los Angeles in early winter, but that’s the extent of the news for now. The same report says based on the studies completed to date, the risk of landslide movement behind last November’s slide — landward into a nature preserve and beyond a new chain link fence — is low.

That’s just the latest from an area southwest of downtown L.A. that has been generating geological news for decades. According to a landslides map by the California Geological Survey, the PV Peninsula boasts 175 slides, 49 of them active.

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Major Study: Oceans Acidifying at “Unprecedented” Rate

University of Southern California and 17 others surveyed 300 million years of ocean life

Kimberly Ayers

Increasing ocean acidity can also affect nutrients like nitrogen.

The breadth of this study  – 18 research institutions and 21 scientists worldwide — and the examination of hundreds of studies stretching so far back into the geologic record makes this conclusion a singularly solid statement about the present trend.

“From everything we know today, it looks like the current rate of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions” may spell the loss of “organisms we care about — coral reefs, oysters, salmon,” says Bärbel Hönisch, the study’s lead author, who I reached by phone in New York. She’s a paleo-oceanographer at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. The paper’s being published today in the journal Science.

The danger comes from what happens when CO2 is absorbed by the oceans: CO2 and water create carbonic acid, the stuff that makes soft drinks bubbly. It also makes the oceans more acidic. That acid can dissolve the shells of “keystone” species that are the building blocks for marine life. The world’s oceans are already twice as acidic – a pH drop from 8.2 to 8.1 — as they were at the start of the Industrial Revolution. That’s an acidification rate 10 times faster than anything found in the record over the past 300 million years, according to this new survey.

For her part in the study, USC doctoral candidate Rowan Martindale was looking at the juncture between the Triassic and Jurassic eras, 200 million years ago. It was a cataclysmic time when the earth’s continents were splitting apart, huge strings of volcanoes were erupting, atmospheric CO2 was at one of the highest levels ever and — you guessed it — hardly any evidence of limestone or coral, two things that dissolve in acidic water. It marked one of the five biggest extinction events in the planet’s history. Atmospheric carbon was increasing at the rate of one gigaton – about 2.2 trillion pounds — per year.

“The modern ocean chemistry is changing, and nobody really knows exactly what’s going happen.”

Today, atmospheric carbon is increasing at the rate of eight gigatonnes per year — about 17.6 trillion pounds. ‘Something weird was going on in the ocean back then,” Martindale says. “The modern ocean chemistry is changing, and nobody really knows exactly what’s going happen.”

Hönisch says the team cited hundreds of studies — the journal had to put a limit on their end list of 218 items — and looked at many more over the past year-and-a-half. “The strength is that when we compare these different events [in the geologic record], we can see the similarities. We can also see where we need more information.”

Both Honisch and Martindale will tell you the paleo record has its gaps and intriguing questions for further study — exactly how atmospheric warming interacts with ocean acidity, and key ocean sediments they’d love to sample that have disappeared back below the sea floor, for example — but their conclusion is clear: the world’s oceans are acidifying at a rate that has never been seen before.

“Maybe things are not as bad as we think, but we don’t know, says Hönisch. “[And] by the time we do, it may be too late to turn around.”

Job and Climate Concerns Driving Support for Large-Scale Solar

For the five desert counties polled, the economy is the top concern, “solar” leads energy choices

Courtesy BrightSource Energy

When it

Here’s the fine print up front: this survey, conducted during December and January, was underwritten by BrightSource Energy, the company that’s building one of California’s largest solar projects at Ivanpah, northwest of Needles in the Mojave Desert. Private capital for Ivanpah came from Google and from CalSTRS, the state’s teachers’ retirement system. It’s an enterprise that’s been lauded by Governors Schwarzenegger and Brown, by U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and President Obama.

But just this week, Ivanpah came under fire in a Los Angeles Times story boldly titled “Sacrificing the Desert to Save the Earth.” BrightSource took to its own website to refute the charge that their utility-scale solar effort is responsible for “razing the desert” and pointed to their “low impact design,” a native plant nursery on site and a “Head Start” program for juvenile desert tortoises.

All that said, the phone survey conducted by Probolsky Research, LLC and released today by Vote Solar, a non-profit advocacy group, shows jobs and the economy leading the list of concerns among 52.3 percent of those polled, horse lengths ahead of a host of other woes which only garnered single-digit responses, including “environmental issues.” Only 5.5 percent put that at the top of the list. Continue reading

A Watered-down Bond for Water System Improvements?

CA Senate President Pro Tem tells water conference $11 billion is too much 

Kimberly Ayers

Is the 2012 water bond heading for the drain?

“There are two subjects water people least want to talk about: politics and money,” said the former head of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, David Nahai. He was speaking at the “Future of Water in Southern California” conference on a dry and windy Friday, here in the City of Angels. And those two were the uncomfortable topics State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) talked about in his lunch hour keynote.

“Everybody asks ‘what’s gonna happen with the bond?’ I don’t know,” Steinberg countered, to modest chuckles.

Sponsored by UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs, the conference was generously sprinkled with Southland water and sanitation district staff. They’d just spent the morning presenting new ideas for water “banking,” and new technologies for advanced recycling, and Steinberg knew the idea of less money would not wash down well with the noontime pasta salad and sandwiches. In fact, a proposal to cut 25% from each project in the water bond measure even failed an Assembly committee vote on Jan. 10th. Continue reading

It’s Official: 2011 a Record-Breaking Year for Climate Extremes

Two more events added to the dozen with $1 billion-plus in damages

Dr. Seuss, Bartholomew and the Oobleck (1949)

"And it's going to keep on falling," he shouted, "until your whole great marble palace tumbles down!"

From droughts and wildfires to tornadoes and hurricanes – and let’s not forget flooding, hail and that Halloween snowstorm — last year will go down as one of the most extreme weather years on record.

This week the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released the final tally for 2011.

The two latest disasters to make the grim list are September’s Tropical Storm Lee which swept up the East Coast to cause record flooding and 21 deaths, and July’s severe weather that brought high winds, hail, and flooding to the Rocky Mountains and the Midwest, and took two lives.

Across the planet it was the 15th consecutive year of above-average temperatures. Here in the U.S., the portion of the nation in extreme drought or very wet conditions was the highest ever:  58%, and that’s nearly three times normal. No surprise that temperatures in Texas made for the second warmest year on record, with the drought there surpassing the severity of ones in the 1930s and 1960s.  Seven states across the Midwest and Northeast had their wettest years ever. Continue reading

Savings May Come Soon Under New Fuel Economy Standard

Consumer group says 54.5 mpg by 2025 a win for drivers & car makers

Mark Blinch / Reuters

The new fuel economy standard gives automakers credits for using electric power and cleaner air conditioning systems.

Gasoline prices hit record highs in 2011 and for the first time last year, the cost of gas equaled or exceeded even the cost of owning a vehicle: on average, the roughly $2,800 dollars that a household spent at the pump was more than a year’s worth of car payments.

Crunching the numbers on a hypothetical new car purchase 13 years from now, the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) says what we’ll save in gas will more than cover the extra spent on new fuel-saving technologies — an $800 savings even at the end of a five-year loan.

What’s  different about this new fleet standard standard — 54.5 MPG by 2025, proposed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and California’s Air Resources Board (ARB) — is what it means for the auto makers as well. Cooper says that by setting the standard far enough in the future, it gives car makers a reliable goal and enough time to work things out.

And it’s an “attribute-based” approach: it doesn’t tell carmakers to build smaller vehicles or different types of vehicles (like electric or alt-fuels), it just mandates the mileage standard itself and allows the manufacturers to come up with an individualized mix of vehicles and features to accomplish it. This is part of the reason you’re seeing more large hybrid SUV’s on the road, and why one of the most touted vehicles at the Detroit Auto Show this week was a V6 “eco-boost” Ford F-150 truck. The first five pages of this report from the Congressional Research Service has a good explanation and the back story.

The automakers get credits or allowances for attributes like electric power and cleaner air conditioning systems, so that 54.5 number works out to just under 40 MPG across a given manufacturer’s fleet. But CFA’s Cooper acknowledges that and still sees the new standard as “a landmark in U.S. Energy policy. They will be making fewer trips to the gas station when they get these vehicles,” he told reporters in a conference call today.

Now I’m just waiting to hear about the woman suing Honda in Small Claims Court down here in Torrance, California. She claims the automaker told her that the hybrid Civic she bought would get 50 miles per gallon. Not so, says the woman. An L.A. County Superior Court judge wants more info. Stay tuned.

How Plastic Trees Could Help Pull Carbon Dioxide Out of the Air

We know that real trees soak up carbon from the atmosphere — but fake trees?

Kimberly Ayers

And you thought plastic palm trees had no redeeming value...

A cheap plastic that removes carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere? “Yes,” says a team of chemists at the University of Southern California’s  (USC) Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute, led by Nobel Prize winner George Olah. Science Now reports on their work with an inexpensive polymer called polyethylenimine or PEI.

But how to maximize its absorption capabilities? Olah’s team dissolved the polymer in a solvent and spread it out, peanut-butter-style, on fumed silica — you know, like the stuff in those desiccant packets in your electronics packaging (“Do not eat,” by the way).  It’s also used as a stabilizer for lipstick and other make-up.

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